Friday, July 26, 2013

Provocation: the Flight for Asylum

It's hard to say what will become of Edward Snowden. But, like many matters of political intrigue, public focus has drifted almost wholly onto the provocateur himself. In a more perfect world, our attention would stand at the doorstep of the largest secret espionage program ever uncovered. Instead we find it lounging at an airport in Moscow. Where will he go? What will he do? What should we do? These seem to be the most harrowing questions we can conjure. But like any moment where one might be baffled by public opinion, we're afforded an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and others.

I think the most interesting reactions have come from the "national security" wing of the Republican party. Since Obama's first election, the Right has been put in the rhetorical position of fending off the expansion of federal power. This, of course, is already a precarious position for them given their track record. At the very least, it gives a lot of Democrats plenty of ammunition to publicly gut various politicians at will.

The Snowden situation seems to be giving them enough rope to hang themselves from an even higher ledge. Now many of these same people are put in a position where they they must excoriate Obama and the federal government for this reach of power, or demonize Snowden's character (as he stands as a perceived threat to the security-state). And while there are plenty of people who simply fall on one side or the other, I have seen plenty of prominent individuals who have somehow managed to hold and defend both views, strongly, and simultaneously. It's a testament, I think, to our tendency to rationalize our views as opposed to actually changing them.

I won't speak to the arguments regarding espionage and federal power. But I do find something peculiar about the way Snowden's character is being demonized. Those who are critical of Snowden have mostly rationalized their opinions on the basis of where he has run to in order to seek asylum. They seem surprised, and often infuriated, that he might flee to China or Russia. This is no surprise, of course. A large part of the Right's "national security" wing was, and continues to be, fixed on China and Russia - the two great bastions of Cold War communism. But there are a couple of things worth noting.

Firstly, generally speaking, the Cold War is over. And while I have concerns about China, and have nothing particularly flattering to say about either country, I think, even without any other considerations, that it's a bit foolish to act as if he had gone to these places in the height of the Cold War. When the intonation of the accusation is that he is essentially working for or with the government of another country, it's important to keep historical context. If he had fled to Britain, no one would be concerned that he was a key part in a plan to re-colonize the Americas.

Secondly, if he really was part of some cooperative effort with such foreign governments, why would he go there in such a public manner? It would seem to be a pretty obvious and critical draw of suspicion regarding said countries. Indeed, why would he even step foot on their soil at all? We're a little too far into the digital age to not be able to understand that money and information can exchange hands from quite a distance. The idea that he would so publicly walk back into the open clutch of his political cohorts reads too much like a bad movie where the villain provides a detailed explanation of what he did and how he did it right before the hero makes his escape.

Thirdly, the first city he fled to (Hong Kong) is arguably the freest place on planet Earth right now. There are plenty of criticisms one can generally lob at China. Judging by many of the criticisms, though, you'd think Snowden left to go spill national secrets to communists under a statue of Mao. Meanwhile, he fled to a particular city that's far freer than any of the cities those criticisms are being lobbed from.

And, lastly, where exactly is it that one would expect someone fleeing the United States to go? They argue, "And look where he went. Of course. Right to countries that hate us. What more proof of his intentions do you need?" And I'll have to answer, "Quite a bit." The reciprocal claim seems to be that Snowden should have fled to a country with closer ties to the United States. And the problem with that, which I hope all of us could arrive at on our own, is that countries with closer ties would obviously extradite him back into the hands of our government. This, by far, would be the most logical reason why you would want to seek asylum in a country that may not particularly share the interests of the United States or its allies. For some, however, these dots don't seem to connect quite as easily.

As with anything else of this nature, I could be completely wrong here. He could really be a modern communist sympathizer, spilling tar into America's political thresher, and pounding shots of vodka with his comrades at a Moscow airport. Of course, given that he made contributions to Ron Paul's presidential campaign, I find that unlikely. Then again, Ron Paul very badly wants to stop that thresher too. Maybe there's an open stool sitting there for him at the end of that airport bar.

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